Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What is a story?

A friend recently passed along a collection of stories to me, unpublished but edited, and asked me what I thought about them. I settled down to read through the mss, but at the end of the first story, I knew what I was going to find all the way through. Still, the request came from a friend, so I kept reading, and at the end of 250 pages, I felt the same way as I had at the beginning—this was not a collection of stories. Only one entry could actually be called a story.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. I am often asked to read mss by unpublished writers—it’s a fact of life for almost every published writer, especially one who has published both short stories and novels. I say no in almost every case, partly because of the time involved in reading and partly because I don’t want to be drawn into editing and teaching a new writer I don’t know when I have my own work to do. But reading this collection got me thinking. Why is it so hard for some writers to grasp the essence of a short story? What is a short story?

It’s easier to say what a story is not. A short story is not an anecdote, a curious incident, a sequence of events. It’s not a description, a slice of life (though such a work was popular in previous decades), a character sketch, a funny or sad moment.

Most of us who write fiction struggle to come up with a workable definition because we’ve been called on, at conferences and on library panels, to offer something definitive to the audience. We do our best, but at the next event, we’ll come up with some other way to define the short story. Having said that, let me take a stab at it.

A short story has shape, and it focuses on a significant moment or event in a character’s life. The reader begins at the moment that a life or situation is about to change—we begin with the norm and immediately feel the redirection of life, and this is what we watch as the story moves forward. As we come to the end, the change bears fruit, or climaxes, or however you want to put it, and we see the character moving forward in a new direction, a new way. Life is different, and we can feel it. A fellow writer once put it this way. Something happens. People change. Mysteries remain.

The ending of a short story is like the final couplet in a sonnet. All the preceding lines lead up to the last two lines, and are lifted higher by them. Without that closing couplet, the sonnet would fall flat, sound hollow and pointless; the reader would come to a halt wondering about the point of the journey. The short story must bring us to that point when a character is different in a deeply significant way, and we have seen and felt it happen, felt it growing along with the character. We close the book and know, as Hemingway urged, that we have read something true and honest.